Prime Time Crime

 

(Published in the Similkameen Spotlight week of Oct. 18, 2004)

Royally Plagiarized

  By John Martin

Iím not sure which of the two was the most trivial of headlines in a slow news week these past seven days.  Martha Stewartís declaration that ďeveryone is real nice in prisonĒ or the revelation that Prince Harry cheated on a college exam.  Not really being too sure what exactly Martha Stewart does for a living, Iíll limit my comments to the latest royal scandal.

Regardless of the circumstances of the Princeís alleged academic dishonesty, his plight renews a significant dialogue that has been rather quiet as of late.  That being, the extent of cheating in post-secondary education these days.

There have been bizarre stories in recent times regarding entire cohorts of law students forging their exams.  Surveys of recent graduates tend to show that cheating is not only widespread, but in many cases, the norm, at colleges and universities across the land.

In the years Iíve been teaching Criminology Iíve never had a Prince in the classroom but Iíve caught numerous students looking at other peopleís papers during exams and reading from notes strategically taped to their chair.  Other more creative types have arranged to have the fire alarm pulled during the exam, which allowed the culprit to confer with a pocket full of notes in the parking lot while waiting for the okay to return to the building.

Iíve also had a couple incidents where students have arranged to have friends and relatives who took the class in previous semesters, casually show up and attempt to write the exam on their behalf.

And of course, like everyone else in this field, Iíve had to deal with countless plagiarized essays over the years.  But the one academic dishonesty incident that Iíll never forget happened during my first couple of semesters in the classroom.

I was marking a stack of essays when I came across one paper that was too good to be true.  And that usually means itís a case of plagiarism.  By running a quick computer check, I discovered that the paper submitted was in fact a word for word copy of a recent article from the New Yorker magazine.

Even more glaring, the student who submitted it was a recent arrival to Canada who was still struggling with the most basic of English.  I felt pretty proud of myself for detecting the original source in a matter of minutes and had a mischievous grin when I showed up for class the following week.

I began my little speech with a talk about the seriousness of plagiarism and how it could result in academic probation, suspension or even expulsion.  I also stressed that such behaviour pretty well slams the door on a career in Criminal Justice and explained that modern library and computer databases make it relatively simple to trace a plagiarized paper.

I concluded this spiel with a suggestion there was someone in the room who clearly submitted a plagiarized essay and would be wise to come and visit me in my office after class.  It was all I could do to avoid eye contact with the culprit during all this.

When the class was over I went, as usual, to grab a cup of coffee from the cafeteria and started up the stairs to the faculty office area.  A bit of a shocker awaited me.  I turned the corner and bumped into a line-up of fifteen students from the class waiting outside my office.  They were red faced, sheepish looking and clearly nervous.

But hereís the kicker.  The kid who copied the New Yorker piece couldnít even be bothered to show up.

And by the way, I thought members of the Royal Family cheated on their spouses Ė not their homework.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at John.Martin@ucfv.ca

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